It’s Time to End Vehicle Inspections in Pennsylvania

The feds force emissions tests, but Harrisburg has the power to get rid of the annual car checkup.

On Wednesday morning, Pennsylvania’s Senate Transportation Committee voted unanimously to advance a resolution calling on the federal government to study the continued efficacy of mandatory vehicle emissions tests with the end goal of hopefully doing away with them altogether.

The proposal was introduced earlier this year by the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Wozniak—a Democrat representing parts of Centre County—who says emissions tests are “ineffective and costly” and that modern technology has made them all but obsolete. A similar bill is pending in the state House.

When the federal government began requiring emissions tests in high-population areas in 1984, only Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were impacted; today drivers in 25 counties are required to bring their cars to a certified facility every year and shell out as much as $50 to have them hooked up to a computerized emissions gauge that checks the levels of particulates in the exhaust.

Since the requirements are based on where you live and not what you drive, enforcement of the tests is notoriously arbitrary: For instance, a Prius owner in York is required to have an annual emissions test, while the owner of a 1979 pick-up truck across the Adams County line in Abbottstown is exempt.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Wozniak called the tests a “burden” on consumers and cited research that shows modern cars are already 98 percent compliant with federal standards.

But even if  Wozniak’s resolution passes (and surely there are thousands of Pennsylvania drivers who hope that it does) there is no guarantee the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will entertain the state’s request; earlier this year the EPA did authorize the city of Anchorage to end mandatory testing—saying cleaner cars have contributed to a drop in the city’s carbon dioxide levels—but Pennsylvania is not Alaska, and other states have had their highway funds threatened for attempting to alter adherence to the guidelines.

My recommendation for Sen. Wozniak would be to use the time while he waits for an answer from the EPA to follow the national trend and do away with Pennsylvania’s own ineffective and costly vehicle inspections—something he and his fellow lawmakers can do without federal permission.

In the name of safety, Pennsylvania’s mechanics run nearly 11 million vehicles a year through a gantlet of tests—such as checking the speedometer, suspension, chassis and glass—most of which have no measurable impact whatsoever on the number of highway fatalities but end up costing consumers millions of dollars in labor costs and unnecessary repairs.

Prior to 1976 the federal government required all states to conduct periodic vehicle safety inspections if they wanted to keep their highway funding. That year Congress passed the Highway Safety Act, which revoked the federal government’s authority to enforce annual vehicle inspections, and states began dropping out of the program left and right.

Today, Pennsylvania is one of just 12 states that still require annual inspections for all cars (four more require biennial inspections). Meanwhile 30 states, including our neighbors New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland have done away with inspections altogether, and legislators in several others—including North Carolina, New Hampshire and Utah—have been trying to do the same.

Advocates say mandatory inspections significantly reduce the number of traffic fatalities caused by automobile malfunctions. But the evidence to back that claim up is tenuous at best. In 2008 the Program Evaluation Division of the North Carolina legislature recommended repealing that state’s mandatory inspection program after issuing a comprehensive report that found the program cost consumers $165 million a year without any verifiable benefit.

“Nearly three decades of research has failed to conclusively show that mechanical defects are a significant cause of motor vehicle accidents or that safety inspections significantly reduce accident rates,” report said.

A year later Pennsylvania hired Massachusetts-based Cambridge Systematics to produce its own report gauging the benefits of mandatory safety inspections. In its “Vehicle Inspection Effectiveness Report” of 2009 Cambridge had this to say about the existing data:

“Given the variation in results and the wide range of fatality and accident reductions estimated by the studies supporting inspections, no definitive conclusion can be made from the previous literature regarding the effectiveness of state vehicle safety inspection programs in reducing fatal and injury accidents.”

The company went on to find the program effective, but their results hardly qualify as the “definitive conclusion” they present them to be.  Without inspections, the report said, the number of fatal crashes could be expected to increase by between 127 and 169 each year. Even without factoring in a standard margin of error, that’s not exactly an overwhelming mandate for a program that inspects 11 million cars a year. What’s more, half of all vehicle failures documented in the Cambridge Systematics report were tire-related; and the researchers made no distinction between states that have annual inspections and those that require them biennially, which confirms, at the very least, that we could be bringing our cars in every two years instead of every one.

To their credit, even in supporting inspections the report recommends trimming them down to focus on “a few key elements” to ensure road safety—namely tires, brakes, and “to some extent” exterior lights. (The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation currently lists no fewer than 19 different criteria that are considered during annual inspections).

Senator Wozniak and his colleagues on the Transportation Committee may be right to assert that car technology has advanced to a level that no longer requires federal oversight, but their outcry will ring hollow if they don’t reconsider our state’s own costly but expendable policies.